So yeah… What I want to write about today are … er … those little words that aren’t real words, but they are words. You all know them, but what do you know about them? Something? Anything? Nothing? Well, even if nothing, I will try to help you.
Interjections – or, as they’re sometimes called, exclamations – are words or phrases that express the emotions of the speaker. You may not be aware of that, but they are among the first words we learn as children. As the name suggests, interjections are interjected between thoughts or sentences (from Latin: “inter” [“between”] + “jacere” [“to throw”] – Oxford Dictionary).
There’s no doubt that interjections constitute the “funny” side of language. It’s enough to take a quick glance at them – “boo-hoo”, “bada bing”, “duh”, “humph”, “mwah”, “ooh-la-la”, “psst”, “whoa”, “yuck” – to admit they look kinda … amusing. That is probably why they are used mainly in informal context. Mainly, however, doesn’t mean always. There are a few interjections that appear in our lives literally every single day, regardless of the situation we are in. You don’t believe me? Then try to notice (not easy, I know) how many times a day (or maybe even an hour?) you use “uh-huh” – which, of course, is the sound we make when we understand or agree with what someone else has said. My guess is … plenty! Sure, you will avoid it in written messages, like business emails; but during a very official business meeting, I can bet you will say “uh-huh” at least a couple of times.
Interjections can be divided into two categories: primary interjections and secondary interjections. The former are words that are used only as interjections (“ahh”, “boo”, “eek”, etc.), while the latter are words or phrases that belong to other parts of speech and thus have separate meanings as interjections (“well”, “hell”, “boy”, etc.).
Now, if you think that interjections are universal all over the world, you are – my friend – greatly mistaken. Believe it or not, but we laugh differently, cry differently, protest differently, hesitate differently. And that means that our feelings and sensations simply must be translated into language in a different way.
Let’s take, for example, the very common expression of pain. In English that’s “ouch”. In French that’s “aïe”, “ouïe”, or “ouille”. Would you have guessed? I wouldn’t. Or let’s look at the exclamation of disgust – “yuck”. In French, that’s either “beurk” or “berk”. Again, not very similar, right? Of course, you will find interjections (“mhm”, “huh”, “oh”, etc.) that are more or less the same across languages. But the vast majority… Well, what can I say – if you want to be fluent in a chosen tongue, interjections are yet another thing you have to learn.
And here’s the funniest part – language learners devote their time to grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling. Because we have to know which tense to use, and which word to choose, and how to pronounce this, and how to spell that. We don’t even think about utterances like “wow” and “aww” and “woohoo”. Which is a mistake. Big mistake, even. Native speakers use interjections on a daily basis. And that includes everyone – from little kids in the US to older adults in the Marshall Islands, from homeless people in Kuwait to CEOs of big companies in France. If you want to achieve so-called proficiency – so-called because true fluency doesn’t exist, but that’s a topic for another day – you have to know all the seemingly meaningless and unimportant fillers. Just like non-verbal communication, they often say more than words.
I’ve been thinking about why interjections aren’t taught in foreign language classes. I can only assume that the reason lies in language propriety and correctness. We have to speak proper English, proper French, proper Arabic. But what does “proper” mean? I’ll be honest here – I don’t have the faintest idea. But I know one thing – that I don’t have to use big words or advanced grammar to speak the “proper” language. I can say “Eh?” instead of “What?”. I can shout “Ouch” in place of “That hurts!”. That’s really ok, because that’s the way people speak.
It can’t be denied that interjections are part of language. They are part of our everyday conversations. And they are … erm … unavoidable if you want to sound more … (American, British, French, Marshallese, Tongan, and so on).